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Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife

by Bart D. Ehrman


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A New York Times bestselling historian of early Christianity takes on two of the most gripping questions of human existence: where did the ideas of heaven and hell come from, and why do they endure?

What happens when we die? A recent Pew Research poll showed that 72% of Americans believe in a literal heaven, 58% in a literal hell. Most people who hold these beliefs are Christian and assume they are the age-old teachings of the Bible. But eternal rewards and punishments are found nowhere in the Old Testament and are not what Jesus or his disciples taught.

So where did the ideas come from?

In clear and compelling terms, Bart Ehrman recounts the long history of the afterlife, ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh up to the writings of Augustine, focusing especially on the teachings of Jesus and his early followers. He discusses ancient guided tours of heaven and hell, in which a living person observes the sublime blessings of heaven for those who are saved and the horrifying torments of hell for the damned. Some of these accounts take the form of near death experiences, the oldest on record, with intriguing similarities to those reported today.

One of Ehrman’s startling conclusions is that there never was a single Greek, Jewish, or Christian understanding of the afterlife, but numerous competing views. Moreover, these views did not come from nowhere; they were intimately connected with the social, cultural, and historical worlds out of which they emerged. Only later, in the early Christian centuries, did they develop into the notions of eternal bliss or damnation widely accepted today.

As a historian, Ehrman obviously cannot provide a definitive answer to the question of what happens after death. In Heaven and Hell, he does the next best thing: by helping us reflect on where our ideas of the afterlife come from, he assures us that even if there may be something to hope for when we die, there is certainly nothing to fear.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501136733
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 03/31/2020
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Bart D. Ehrman is a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity and a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The author of six New York Times bestsellers, he has written or edited more than thirty books, including Misquoting Jesus, How Jesus Became God, The Triumph of Christianity, and Heaven and Hell. Ehrman has also created nine popular audio and video courses for The Great Courses. His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages, with over two million copies and courses sold.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Preface xv

Chapter 1 Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell 1

Chapter 2 The Fear of Death 17

Chapter 3 Life After Death Before There Was Life After Death 35

Chapter 4 Will Justice Be Done? The Rise of Postmortem Rewards and Punishments 57

Chapter 5 Death After Death in the Hebrew Bible 81

Chapter 6 Dead Bodies That Return to Life: The Resurrection in Ancient Israel 103

Chapter 7 Why Wait for the Resurrection? Life After Death Right After Death 127

Chapter 8 Jesus and the Afterlife 147

Chapter 9 The Afterlife After Jesus's Life: Paul the Apostle 169

Chapter 10 Altering the Views of Jesus: The Later Gospels 191

Chapter 11 The Afterlife Mysteries of the Book of Revelation 213

Chapter 12 Eternal Life in the Flesh 233

Chapter 13 Tactile Ecstasy and Torment in the Christian Hereafter 253

Chapter 14 Who Will Inherit the Blessings? Purgatory, Reincarnation, and Salvation for All 271

Afterword 291

Notes 297

Index 313

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